Digital Design = Form or Function?

At its best design delivers both form and function. If you have to choose form OR function, I’d take function any day. Design without function is art, which is lovely in a museum or plaza or Burning Man (below), but for businesses wanting to use technology for a purpose, it had better be design and not art.

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It’s no surprise to people familiar with Astek that we enter the design discussion from the function side of the equation. That doesn’t mean we don’t have deep-rooted brand considerations and design aesthetics. Indeed, these factors inform everything we do for our clients and ourselves. But we start every discussion by asking questions about the function. Who is going to use it? How will they use it? Why? What is the brand promise this experience must deliver?

We must establish a common vocabulary around design and the people who implement it. The discovery, research, information architecture, wire-framing and indeed the final artwork are all critical components of the design process. A great painter spends 90% of his energy preparing the surface and 10% applying paint. That’s how we view design. The graphics are only a small component of the overall effort to produce great design.

As Steve Jobs famously said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like – Design is how it works.”

I couldn’t agree more. Apple is an obvious example of the nearly perfect blend of form and function. I say “nearly” because I don’t believe there is a perfect when it comes to design. There is always room for improvement and the world is a dynamic medium, so design must also evolve with culture and people’s familiarity with technology. Apple is primarily a hardware company, but they have designed loads of great software along the way to get their hardware to work a certain way.

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Apple has introduced most of the game-changing computer hardware designs over the past few decades. They didn’t invent the concepts basic, necessarily, but made them work a lot better. The ones with the greatest recent world impact were the original iMac in 1998 (above), iPod in 2001 to dethrone portable music experience inventor Sony, iPhone in 2007, and iPad and MacBook Air redesign in 2010 (the original Air was not powerful enough to fulfill the “function” side of the equation). If you look at all of the smartphones and computers we use today, you can trace just about all of their form and function back to something Apple produced. And the inception of most of those designs since the iMac can be credited to Jony Ive. Some would say that Motorola is now in a position similar to Apple in 1998.

One of my biggest pet peeves is design for the sake of design (i.e., making it look right when it still doesn’t work right). People don’t have much patience for that anymore. I’ve been an Apple geek since the 80’s so I’ve always appreciated their industrial design from the inside even before it got “pretty.” Apple raised the bar and now the open market is raising it even further with dozens of manufacturers pouring millions into each new device to one-up the last one.

All design strives to be intuitive. But here again we have a vocabulary problem. We often use the word intuitive when we mean familiar. The iPad in particular has given us all new insight into exactly what intuitive means. As I’ve seen my two-year-old niece play with an iPad over the past couple of years, I have to label this device as “intuitive” in the truest sense. The test is valid because she took to it almost instantly with no context of how computers work, have worked or should work. It just works.

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But take a look at a fundamentally new version of widely popular and familiar software such as Microsoft Word with the Ribbon interface, which had countless time and money invested in creating a more efficient workflow to save businesses time and money. People tended to reject it unless they receive a lot of training since it was so fundamentally different than what they were used to. It went against their muscle memory and familiarity, which they might think is instinct. We’re all wired to resist change, even though it’s inevitable. Microsoft is now doing the same thing with Windows 8, a real game-changer that will take years to catch on because it’s so different.

The digital designer of the future can’t think of design as a fixed product or outcome. Many traditional print designers still struggle with this notion and we enjoy collaborating with them to apply their brilliant concepts to multi-channel delivery. Rather than a fixed palette or frame, design is now a fluid construct where we must conceive the molecular structure of content that will be reassembled in countless ways on countless mediums, channels and devices based on the user’s environment and interest at any given moment in time. This is generally defined as user experience design, and it’s something every digital designer needs to be thinking about.

One of the most brilliant examples of narrative design on the Web I’ve seen recently is found in this interactive New York Times piece, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” As you scroll through the story, various interactive elements like animations and maps appear at just the right time to provide extra insight into what you’re reading. I expect we’ll start seeing a lot more material like this, which blends storytelling, writing, design and programming to create something richer and more meaningful. It’s hard to make this work without all the extra media becoming a distraction, which I’d label as a design task.

A recent example of this for me was evaluating new phones for the office. We tried testing a less expensive brand and I quickly realized that you get what you pay for. One of the reasons this brand was recommended was that it’s “easier to program.” Well, what do I care? Once it’s programmed, what I care about is how it works (and looks and feels). This is where the lines blur. It looks and feels cheaper, but mostly functions the same. It’s little things, however, like not being able to press the speaker button to hang up a hands-free call or not having the physical buttons line up correctly with the labels on the screen that impact the user experience.

Attention to design may very well be the difference between someone using your product or not, and especially talking about it. The digital tools at our disposal are nearly limitless and the barrier to entry has been reduced. That said, some formal design training is still a good idea to learn fundamentals that worked long before digital. Here’s a brand design test: try covering up the logo of a “custom” Web design that you like and see if it still “feels” like the company you know.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on design in the comments box. In the meantime, you can read a bunch of great design quotes here.

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